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Gaëlle Garcia Diaz: “Poker is More Than a Sport to Me, It’s My Passion”
Host, model and poker player: Belgium’s Gaëlle Garcia Diaz is the complete package.
What might surprise you is just how much she loves poker.
Despite all her other interests, over the last couple years she’s dedicated herself to getting better at the game and the work is paying off.
Diaz recently took part in the 2014 Battle of Malta and PokerListings’ Fred Guillemot caught up with her for an in-depth interview:
PokerListings: Gaëlle, first of all, what are your impressions about the Battle of Malta?
Gaëlle Garcia Diaz: What impressed me the most, I think, is just how popular it is. There are lots of players here, it's really good for PokerListings.
The people are also really nice, which is not always the case on the other poker tours. The venue is also good and it's so practical to be staying right next door at the Hilton. This tournament is so well-organized, especially compared to others. Not to mention the €700,000 prize pool!
As for the way I played, well... I was a bit unlucky at first and got off to a bad start. I climbed my way back up but it wasn't enough.
(Editor's note: two days after the interview, Gaëlle went on to a deep run in the Siege of Malta tournament and finished 14th out of 593 players.)
PL: Do you prefer hosting or playing poker?
Playing! I used to prefer hosting, but that's because I sucked at poker.
And then a few years ago I started playing on the Internet, reading poker books, spending times on forums, and talking with great players like Davidi Kitai, Matthias and Christophe De Meulder, Kevin McPhee and Jeff Madsen who have all become very close friends of mine.
These guys give you the best advice, stuff you can't find in the books. It's the best way to improve.
Poker is so much more than just a sport for me. It's my passion, it's my life: I host poker, I play poker, I write about poker, I read about poker... I mean, I can't even go to bed until I finish my four or five-hour grinding session every night.
Because I put in the hours playing online, I understand my mistakes and my weaknesses. When I look back on how I was playing three years ago, I can't believe how bad I was!
The good thing about poker is that as long as you think you're a good player, basically you're crap. It's only when you start doubting yourself and your skills that you start improving.
PL: Humility seems crucial in poker, yet many young players are very confident – some would say almost arrogant.
It's like they have something to prove. Personally, I'm absolutely not embarrassed to say that I suck. I've only been playing for four or five years, I'm obviously not one of the best players. But I'm doing okay.
My priority is to have fun when I'm playing. I think a lot of players have lost this notion of pleasure because all they think about is money.
I mean yes, we all play to win, but you need to stay humble.
Look at Daniel Negreanu for example, he's one of the best players in the world — if not the best. I spent a few weekends with him in Vegas last summer, and we didn't even talk about poker. Not once.
Yes, he loves poker. But he also loves a lot of other things: boxing, rock climbing, horse riding, archery…
And then there are some players who make one final table and let it get to their head.
People know me. Not because I'm a good player, but because I've been hanging around on the EPT for five years now and I've hosted a lot of TV shows all around Europe. But I'd never let that get to my head.
PL: Do you think we can draw a parallel between modelling and poker? In both cases you’re kind of playing a part...
Something like that, yeah! In both cases I'm not really myself anymore. When I'm in front of the camera, I'm not Gaëlle Garcia Diaz anymore, I'm the girl they want me to be: the sexy girl, the man-eater... But I'm really not like that in real life.
The problem is that people see me as dumb because I do sexy photoshoots, or think I'm a pretentious bitch. I'm really not like that, it's just something I enjoy because for the time of the photoshoot, for one day, I escape from myself. It's also a way to see myself as pretty, which I don't in everyday life.
And then there's poker, where I know that I don't have to be hot to do well. I don't have to put too much makeup on, I can wear whatever I want... What matters is my brain and strategy.
Still, it doesn't mean you're not playing a part. Yesterday for example, I pretended to be the dumb girl who doesn't know anything about poker. Sometimes I also do wear sexy clothes. It's sad but it works, because that's a lot of men's weakness: they don't want to bust you.
To be honest, it doesn't work with everyone – especially the pros – and it certainly worked better when people knew me less. [laughs]
PL: Speaking of which, does that kind of attention from men make you feel uncomfortable sometimes?
Strangely, not when I'm playing poker. It used to make me feel very uncomfortable when I was hosting the EPT: you walk in with your skimpy dress and there are a thousand players looking at you. That's a lot of testosterone.
Maybe that's why I tend to dress quite plainly when I play. In everyday life, I really don't do anything to attract attention, it can quickly become tiresome for a woman.
Most of the time when I play poker, people stare at me when they wonder if I'm Liv Boeree or Leo Margets.
It used to happen a lot, especially when I had dark hair. Once, I even said, “Yes, it’s me Liv.” [laughs]
PL: Would you say that the camera is addictive, in some ways?
It used to be, for a long time. In 2012, I did 30 magazine covers – mostly because I was on the cover of Playboy Benelux in 2011 for an amazing photoshoot.
It was a bit crazy back then, but I learned to be picky. You need to be rigorous.
That's how I managed to step back discover a new passion: poker. I haven't done many photoshoots in the last two years, I only do them when I'm really interested in the project or it's a photographer I love.
I really appreciate having that kind of freedom, it's crucial for me.
PL: What are you up to, outside of poker?
I'm in a TV show that will air in France and Belgium in a few weeks. It's called Hollywood Girls and it was shot in the US.
It will be kind of a French version of Ugly Betty... in which I'll be Betty.
I also act in plays, model, play poker and comment on the EPT in Belgium... and now we're going to start the Hollywood Girls promo.
I'm also in a Dutch TV show about poker called Bluff, in which I play my (fake) self. It was really funny to shoot, especially since we went to Monte Carlo, Amsterdam, etc.
And well, I also play a lot of poker. The Belgian championship is coming up and I'm preparing myself very seriously, both psychologically and strategically. I really want to do well. And right after that I'll be doing the EPT Prague webcast.
PL: That's quite a full schedule!
Yes, but I love everything I'm doing, so it's okay. In poker, you can't survive more than six months if you're not passionate. It's so different from everything else.
It's a lot of work, I pretty much have no free time and I almost don't see my friends, but that's how it is. Traveling is part of the job.
PL: And between poker, modelling and acting, you do travel a lot.
That's definitely one of the perks. This freedom to go where I want and do what I want is super important.
I get bored really easily, so I need to always be busy. I need action and adrenaline, 24/7.
PL: What drives you?
I think work calls for more work.
Being here for example, it creates connections, you meet plenty of people. That's life.
Look at how it started out for me: I got a job with PokerStars because of a magazine cover I did. They're two completely different fields, but now five years later I'm working for poker's number one brand. That's kinda crazy when you think about it.
Back then they were looking for a girl for a photoshoot to advertise a workshop with Marcel Luske at the Belgian Open Championship and they thought about me. But I didn't know anything about poker.
After the shoot, they offered me to stay for the event... I wasn't even 21 then, so the only reason I could attend the workshop is because it was actually held outside of the casino.
I ended up playing a small tournament and finished 16th – total beginner's luck – but I thought that was awesome. After that, I kinda forgot about poker for six months but then the director of PokerStars Belgium contacted me again to ask me if I wanted him to coach me and teach me poker.
I read a lot of books but what really helped me improve is when I started hosting the EPT. When you watch the best players and comment on what they do, you learn a lot without even realizing it.
And five years later, here I am. My dream is to win an EPT. But for that, I'm going to have to play thousands of hands, read a lot of books, talk with other players and analyze my hands... You need to be proactive, no one is going to hand anything to you.
I've also known failure, but what matters is how you get back up. Especially in poker, because you're always going to fail more than you succeed.
PL: You've studied communication and PR. Did you have a career plan?
Yes, I wanted to follow in my mum's footsteps – she works in the communication department of Volvo Cars Belgium.
At first I wanted to study drama and make a living as an actress, but my parents weren't really happy about that and insisted that I should get a degree.
For an actor, communication is about as close as you can get to acting, especially since it gave me the opportunity to work on the radio a bit and learn about hosting.
So I got my degree, quite brilliantly, and I eventually managed to do what I want and work on TV.
In the end, I don't regret it because it really helps me, even today. For example, I write articles for PokerStars, and that's a skill I learned in school. Whatever you do, you learn something!
PL: What are your goals, career-wise?
First of all, I'd like to reach the final table of a big tournament. I'm cashing more and more frequently live, so I'd like to just keep improving.
You need to have realistic goals, I'm not going to say that I want to be a November Niner next year.
PL: It's funny, when I ask you about you career, you spontaneously talk to me about poker, not modelling or TV and cinema.
I actually have two big dreams. One is to make it in Hollywood as an actress, but that's the little girl in me. And the other one is to have won four EPTs in 10 years. (laughs)
And if I have to pick? I want to be a professional poker player.
PL: So you'd pick a WSOP bracelet over an Oscar?
But you can't get there if you don't have a dream. If you don't think that you're going to make it, you won't. I was talking about it with Daniel Negreanu in Vegas and he was telling me that every time he's reached a final table, he kinda knew at the beginning of the tournament that he was going to do well.
Same thing with thinking he could become the best player in the world. It took him 15 years but he made it.
Psychology takes precedence over everything else. When you're absolutely convinced that it's your tournament, you do everything you can to win and you make less mistakes. If you start out thinking "we'll see how it goes", you might as well not play at all.
So at the start of every tournament I play, I'm completely pumped. If I bust, I want it to be because of a bad beat. As long as I play my best poker, there's nothing I can do about it. And eventually it will work out, it has to.
Before my first really deep run online – three years after I started playing poker – there was a time when I was just over it. We've all been through that, when you just want to quit, although I had a sponsor.
My boss took me aside, got his iPad out and launched this dice app. He said: "Throw it. Each time you get a 5, it means you cash."
He did that to show me what luck and variance were. To show me how hard it is to cash live. I had to throw the dice 30 times to get a 5! See what I mean? That's what poker is like.
Maybe you're going to play for years before you get a really big result. Just because you've never made it to a final table doesn't mean you're not a good player. That's the worst part. And I know a lot of players like that.
PL: So what is the difference between these players and the ones like Davidi Kitai or Daniel Negreanu, who manage to have excellent results on a regular basis?
These players, they're the best and they play tournaments with smaller fields, like high rollers with 30 players, 30%-40% of which are businessmen.
Other than that, I don't really know if it's about luck or if there's something that they understand. Plus they're exceptional players, and the better their results are, the more people are scared of them.
Daniel for example, he's amazing at reading people. That's some kind of gift. I think that for each hand he plays, he knows all the potential scenarios right from the beginning. He's just way ahead of us.
Yet he's arguably not the best player in the world. Dan Colman for example is also great, and there are some monster players online who are like engineers or statisticians. It's sad, but it works. Some don't even look at their cards anymore.
PL: What do you think is your best asset in poker and in life in general?
Paradoxically, I think my best quality in poker is that I'm very patient. I have extraordinary patience when I play poker, whereas I'm actually the opposite in life.
PL: Is poker a way to escape?
Absolutely. Poker helps me focus and channel my energy, because you can't be hyper at the table. When I spend hours playing poker and even when I bust, I'm really relaxed. I feel good. Maybe that's because it's mentally tiring.
The good thing is that I don't tilt anymore. It used to happen to me a lot, but after the Marbella Estrellas, where I did my first real deep run (editor's note: 40th out of 270), I was so happy that it just clicked.
PL: Is there a question you've never been asked but would like to be asked?
I'd like to be asked where I see myself in 10 years, but not professionally, personally. That's something no one asks me. I'll be 37. I don't really want to have children, but I hope I'll be married by then, with a nice house in another country... and an old white Porsche Targa S. Especially the Porsche! [laughs]